Prisons are in a crisis of the government’s own making

We have never witnessed such a sharp deterioration in prison conditions as we have seen in the last two years.

We have never witnessed such a sharp deterioration in prison conditions as we have seen in the last two years

Not one, not two, not three but four reports from prison watchdogs have revealed the depth of the crisis gripping prisons in England and Wales.

Three of the reports come from Independent Monitoring Boards (IMBs) – groups of volunteers which monitor the conditions in specific prisons. All three of these IMB reports – into Brixton, Bristol and Winchester prisons – should make for grim reading at the Ministry of Justice.

Brixton IMB described staffing levels at the London jail as being such that they “wholly ignore the requirements of running a prison effectively, safely and humanely”. Winchester IMB considers the Hampshire jail’s staffing levels to be “barely sufficient to sustain the day-to-day operation of the prison”. Bristol IMB describes a prison at “bursting point”, with staffing levels which leave the prison unable to ensure a safe environment for prisoners and staff.

Can you see a common theme yet? All three IMBs slam the government for cutting staff numbers at a time when prison numbers continue to rise.

And these are not the so-called ‘left-wing pressure groups’ that Chris Grayling is so keen to deride – these are independent bodies appointed by the secretary of state himself.

The most shocking report of all however has been delivered by Nick Hardwick, Her Majesty’s chief inspector of prisons. Hardwick’s report into Elmley prison, on the Isle of Sheppey, is one of the worst reports in a long line of shockers from the Inspectorate in recent months.

Elmley prison, which holds over 1,200 men but was designed for less than a thousand, was found to be grossly overcrowded and understaffed, resulting in a “very restricted and unpredictable” regime. There was one major disturbance a month at the Kent prison. Over the previous 11 months, there had been 11 acts of concerted indiscipline when prisoners had refused to return to their cells. There had been none in the 12 months before that.

The overall number of fights and assaults in Elmley had increased by 60 per cent over the past year and the number of serious assaults had also increased sharply. Inspectors witnessed vulnerable prisoners being abused without staff intervention. There had been five deaths by suicide in two years.

Association, exercise and domestic periods were cancelled at short notice every day, with prisoners being turned away from education and work because of staff shortages. About 15 per cent of the population, or almost 200 men, were unemployed and routinely spent 23 hours a day locked in their cells. Forty per cent of prisoners reported it was easy to obtain drugs in Elmley.

Despite being designated as a ‘resettlement prison’ meant to help prisoners return to their communities safely, the offender management unit at Elmley was “overwhelmed”, with half the posts remaining vacant and staff frequently deployed to other duties. Supervisors received no training or support and inspectors found that none of the cases they reviewed showed any meaningful work had been done to address the offending behaviour of the prisoner concerned.

I could go on. The Howard League for Penal Reform has never witnessed such a sharp deterioration in prison conditions as we have seen in the last two years.

It is surely madness to cram more and more people behind bars while starving the prisons of the staff and resources required to manage them safely. How can we expect people to turn their lives around in an environment where violence and drug abuse is rife, while staff charged with assessing risk and addressing offending behaviour do not have the training or support to do their job?

Sadly we have seen a ‘see no evil, hear no evil’ attitude develop within the Ministry of Justice. Last month the chief inspector spelt out the impact of government policies in his annual report, only to have the prisons minister Andrew Selous claim that Hardwick had “failed to provide any evidence” supporting his assertions.

Yet it is plain for all to see that as staffing has been reduced, the prisons have become more violent and dangerous places. Indeed, Hardwick himself had rightly pointed out in his annual report from 2013 that difficult choices were now faced by ministers.

Either they should cut prison numbers or provide the funds required to manage the prison population safely. By doing neither of these things, ministers cannot pretend they were not warned what the consequences would be.

Andrew Neilson is director of campaigns at the Howard League for Penal Reform

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